What Happened To CITIZEN KANE’s Camera Negative

Citizen Kane

For film historians, their are a number of cinematic Holy Grails that we continue to hope will be discovered one day in some dusty, dark corner of a film archive – lost silent films such as London After Midnight and the original nine-hour cut of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed or films that were edited down from their original length like George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) or Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) where the original ct footage had been lost or outright destroyed.

And then there are the Holy Grails for things that we do have copies of but still need, the chief among them is the original camera negative for Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane.

Now some of you may be asking, “What are you talking about? Citizen Kane isn’t a lost film.” And if you have a half-decent physical media collection you are adding “I have a copy right over there on my DVD/blu-ray shelf.”

True but that copy, no matter what format you may have it on, does not look as good as it potential could and that is because the film’s original camera negative – the actual film that ran through cinematographer Gregg Toland’s camera during film – has been lost. And while the various home video releases have done fairly good jobs presenting the film’s groundbreaking and stylistic cinematography, those releases have been working from material generations removed from the original camera negative meaning that they are subject to the subtle and compounding issue of image degradation the further away they get from the original negative.

In the case of Citizen Kane, it was widely thought that the original camera negative for the film was lost in a lab fire in the 1970s, though some held out the hope that perhaps there had been a some sort of mistake, and that the negative was just waiting to be rediscovered.

(Welles seemed to have an inordinate amount of bad luck when it came to his films. In addition to the loss of the camera negative from Citizen Kane, his second feature The Magnificent Ambersons was taken from him, had approximately an hour of footage cut and new scenes shot. The 30 minutes of footage cut by the studio from his 1946 noir The Stranger has also disappeared into the mists of time. Welles’ 1998 film Touch Of Evil was similarly re-edited by the studio, although in this case, the director’s original intentions for the film was restored in 1998 based on a series of notes that the late director had left. His final film, The Other Side Of The Wind, had to wait over thirty years before legal hurdles could be cleared in order for it to be completed and released.)

This weekend, writer and Numb3rs co-creator Nicolas Falacci revealed on twitter that the Citizen Kane camera negative did not perish in a negative fire. Falacci was working at a New York City film restoration lab when studio RKO contracted them at their start of preparation for a new restoration of the film for it’s upcoming 50th anniversary when he learned of the negative’s possible fate.

But let’s let Falacci tell the story himself –

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About Rich Drees 7174 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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